Tweet in haste, repent at leisure: A lesson for Paris Brown

The digital  generation is growing up online and, as Paris Brown discovered to her cost, the compromising posts we make in our youth can easily derail a career

If waking up to find your old tweets dredged up and splashed on the front page of a Sunday newspaper wasn’t enough of a rude awakening for Paris Brown, the ordeal had only just begun. The teenager dutifully appointed as Britain’s first Youth Police and Crime Commissioner was hauled in front of TV cameras to explain references made as young as 14 in which she condoned drug use and referred to “pikeys” and “fags”. By this afternoon she had resigned.

Explaining her reason for writing the tweets, she originally said: “It’s an age thing. Older generations haven’t grown up with Twitter and social media. For young people it’s different. You don’t want to bother people with your problems. You just think, I’m annoyed, Tweet!”

It was, in fact, a shrewd observation. And in recent days the teenager has become the poster girl of a generation that is growing up in uncharted digital waters where past transgressions are resurfacing to people later in life. Kent PCC Ann Barnes said that her apprentice, who was selected from more than 160 candidates has been forced to “grow up” and “learn very quickly”.

She is not the only one. Labour frontbencher Chuka Umunna, 34, was recently forced into an apology after past online musings caught up with him. Messages written under a pseudonym described London’s West End as “full of trash and class-C wannabes”. It might have been an honest impression of London nightlife five years ago; but it wasn’t a turn of phrase a young MP with ambitions of higher office would want to be readily associated with now. As if that wasn’t enough, it was later alleged that Mr Umunna or a member of his staff tinkered with his own Wikipedia entry to allegedly compare his political prowess to Barack Obama.

Experts warn that, for the generation behind Mr Umunna, there are more dangerous risks ahead.

“We’re about to have our attitudes truly tested,” warns Katy Howell of social media agency Immediate Future. “If you think the odd racist tweet is bad, wait until the 14-year-olds that are compromising themselves on Tumblr become famous or assume boardroom positions in 15 years from now. There’ll be far more uncomfortable revelations and careers, and even people’s lives, risk being derailed.”

It comes amid much fear over the way social media is used. “Even before they make it into high-profile positions people need to start consciously deciding why and how they plan to use a social network,” says Prashant Yadave, of the agency Karmarama.

The EU is currently moving to legislate for data to be eradicated from companies in what is billed as “the right to be forgotten”. Britain has hitherto opposed the moves, with the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling believing it to create legal difficulties due to the virtual impossibility of fully removing all data from the internet.

Businesses, too, fear it could wreck what is now one of their most effective way to reach customers, with digital adspend worth more than £6.5bn last year according to figures out today. Social media is the latest marketing weapon, with spending in the past three years increasing almost four-fold to £328m.

But would any of this legislation have helped Paris Brown? Unlikely, says Jim Killock, head of the Open Rights Group, which campaigns for privacy and consumer rights online. “It may be that she could have asked for the account to be deleted in full but it wouldn’t remove the historic record of what she said, which might well remain in other caches on other sites or in other places.”

Which gets to the nub of the issue: even with the greatest diligence, there is no guarantee that your internet track history can be entirely erased. In which case, should the Kent Police Commissioner have made the hiring at all? PCC Barnes told The Independent that there was no vetting of Ms Brown’s social media background. “She was subject to national vetting procedures but these do not currently include social media. But neither would it for any party elected official. This could, in that sense, be a landmark case.”

Mr Killock adds: “If someone says something in public, people need to know it comes with certain responsibilities. If you don’t have the opportunity to delete the data, that is in the hands of a third party and it is this that takes us into a potentially dangerous and unpredictable new world.”

Blue State Digital is the social media agency behind Barack Obama’s two successful election campaigns. With thousands of volunteers – aides and party members working on behalf of the President – the agency adopted various levels of vetting of members that started on blind trust and continued the closer one came to Mr Obama.

Rob Blackie, the agency’s European managing director, said it reprimanded the few people who breached the code, and in some cases, dismissed them. He adds: “We used to have a society that clearly defined public and private domain. No longer – social media and real life is overlapping and I think ultimately the world will move in a more mature direction to accommodate for the differences.”

For now though, Mr Blackie says the safest way is to assume everything you write is public and likely to return to haunt you just as it has for a growing catalogue of victims. “As egocentric as it may seen now, there is nothing to stop anyone falling out with you and then leaking all your information to a newspaper should ever become even mildly famous.”

Online defence: Sites to clean up your profile

Socialsafe

The tool allows you to view all social media timelines simultaneously and in chronological order. This helps to keep tabs on your wider digital footprint and act accordingly. (socialsafe.net)

SimpleWash

Scans your Facebook and Twitter profile; pinpointing suspect words that might reflect badly on the world. Also untags you from potentially incriminating photographs. (simplewa.sh)

My permissions

Displays all third parties to which you have granted third-party access to your Facebook or Twitter accounts. Makes it easier to view permissions and modify accordingly. (mypermissions.org)

Tweet Eraser

Deletes 350 Tweets an hour sorted by keyword or hashtag. Far faster than deleting each Tweet manually. (tweeteraser.com)

Qnary

Shows your precise “digital footprint” in terms of where your entries are linking; how you’re “perceived” online and the company you hold. (qnary.com)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?